Neighbors show up in force to protest Boy Scouts course

04/18/2013 10:00 PM |

BOY SCOUTS OF AMERICA COURTESY PHOTO | Scouts on a rope obstacle course.

After hearing nearly an hour of objections from neighbors and others, the Riverhead Planning Board on Thursday afternoon decided to adjourn to May 2 a public hearing on a controversial proposal to built a “COPE course” on a section of the Baiting Hollow Boy Scouts Camp that is only about 100 feet from homes.

The COPE (Challenging Outdoor Personal Experience) course is a series of 12 rope and wire climbing devices that are hung from twelve 35-foot high telephone poles. One of the devices is a zip line.

The various challenges are designed to meet Boy Scouts of America standards, and are based on attaining seven goals outlined by the Boy Scouts of America: teamwork, communication, trust, leadership, decision making, problem solving and self-esteem, according to the Boy Scouts.

More than 300 Scouts camps across the country have COPE courses, scouting officials said.

But residents of Silver Beech Lane questioned why the Scouts chose to put the course right near their homes, when the Scouts camp is almost 90 acres in size.

Bob Oleksiak, whose home is closest to the proposed course, read a letter from his wife, Mary, who was present, but he said “would be crying” if she read it herself.

Ms. Oleksiak, who has cancer, said that if built, she would see the course from every window in her home, instead of the nature and wildlife she sees now.

“After cancer, I just want to rest and recuperate. This will no longer be a place to heal and recover, it will be my cause of death,” her letter read.

Other neighbors, including former town Councilman George Bartunek and Joe Van de Wetering, said they have no objection to the COPE, just to the proposed location.

“This is not a NIMBY issue,” Mr. Van de Wetering said. “This is an ‘in your face’ issue.”

Fran Rosenfeld, who lives next to the Oleksiaks, said she would never be able to sell her house if the COPE course is behind it.

Richard Amper, speaking on his own behalf and not on behalf of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society nonprofit he helps lead, said the presentation by the Boy Scout representatives at Thursday’s hearing made hardly any mention of the neighbors.

“I can’t figure out why the Boy Scouts are constantly at war with their neighbors,” he said.

The Baiting Hollow camp many years ago proposed to install a cell tower that neighbors opposed, and the Schiff Scout Reserve on Wading River-Manor Road had proposed selling their camp and allowing it to be cleared for a golf course many years ago. Neither proposal came to fruition.

Several other speakers, including former supervisor Phil Cardinale, who is representing the Oleksiaks as an attorney, said the proposal should require a special permit from the Town Board before the Planning Board can vote on the site plan because it constitutes an expansion of a “pre-existing, non-conforming use,” meaning that the use existed before zoning but doesn’t conform to its present zoning, which is residential.

A town planning report from environmental planner Joe Hall said that proposal doesn’t constitute an expansion of the pre-existing use, merely an accommodation for enhancing the existing scout camp.

Mr. Cardinale disagreed, saying that when he was supervisor, projects that were proposed on the non-profit Little Flower campus, which also is a non-conforming, pre-existing use, needed special permits from the Town Board.

He said that if the Scouts are allowing non-Scouts groups to use the course for a fee, that would constitute a new use.

Mr. Grimaldi said in an interview that the Scouts do charge a fee to school and youth groups, but do so only to recover their costs in having an instructor present. He said the course is never used without a Scout instructor present.

Councilman John Dunleavy and others said they felt the Scouts should be made to agree in writing that they would not rent the space out to non-Scout groups if the COPE course is approved.

Mr. Cardinale said COPE courses are used be non-Scouts groups. He referred to a quote from the Baiting Hollow camp’s director Jim Grimaldi in a News-Review article about the COPE course, in which Mr. Grimaldi said the course would also be used by school and youth groups, as well as to information from national Boy Scouts web sites saying that COPE courses are routinely rented out to non-Scout groups.

John Roe, the attorney for Suffolk County Boy Scouts, said he could not commit to that restriction without discussing it with Scouts leaders first.

But he said the Scouts camp at Baiting Hollow has been there for 87 years and “we tried to be a good neighbor during that time. We think the impact from this is going to minimal.”

He said the Scoust camp is only used from July 1 to the end of August for weekday campers, but it is used on weekends sometimes beyond those months.

Mr. Grimaldi said the site in question was chosen because it is the only site on the camp that is flat enough to put the course.

Mr. Roe said the camp property is like a “U” in that it is high on the east and west ends and low in the middle, where Fresh Pond is.

Bill Dunn, the vice president for program at the Suffolk County Scouts, said the COPE course is not an obstacle course in which the objective is to complete it quickly. It’s a course where instructors give directions to scouts who then carry them out.

“This is very disciplined,” he said. The COPE course has consistently been suggested by scout leaders as something the Baiting Hollow camp lacks.

The course is not open to anyone who shows up, he said, and when it is not being used, the various climbing challenges are not reachable without a ladder.

But Mr. Oleksiak said the course will not be secured, because people could enter from private property, and those people could bring a ladder.

Planning Board member Ed Densieski said the board would adjourn the hearing to their next meeting, which is at 7 p.m. May 2.

Prior to the hearing, residents had asked that the date of the hearing be shifted to a night meeting. The Planning Board declined to do so, but said it could have the day time hearing on Thursday and then adjourn it to the night meeting.

tgannon@timesreview.com